Business leaders understand how important company culture is to their organizations’ overall success. Yet are they fully in control of it?
Don’t get me wrong. Leaders certainly shape company culture. But strong cultures form from the bottom up based on how employees interact with one another.
In my experience, leaders can support the development of a strong company culture by recognizing that there is an important organizational structure developing organically within their companies that is separate from their org charts—groups of employees who share common interests, hobbies, or life situations.
At the helm of each of these groups is what I consider to be the greatest hidden asset of any company or team: a culture champion.
Culture Is Found In Unstructured Activities
A company’s culture is created in the unstructured happenings that lie outside of an employee’s normal day job. Manufacturing and consumer goods company 3M was a pioneer in this ideology when it launched its “15% Culture” in 1948. (Yes, 1948!) This program, which encourages employees to set aside normal work and pursue ideas that excite them, gives workers room to innovate. The company credits the program with being the catalyst for one of 3M’s most popular products, the Post-It Note.
If employees are excited about a project or innovation that is not typically in their purview, get them involved and allow them to be your culture champions. When my company moved to a new office, I noticed that our designer was interested in having some influence on the look and feel of the place. Rather than brushing his suggestions aside, we let him run with it, and he actually took it really far—going to Lowe’s to collect paint swatches, creating 3D mockups of the building, and hosting informal focus groups to get the feedback of other employees.
Even if an employee’s passion has absolutely nothing to do with work—maybe it’s yoga or wakeboarding or board games—the person probably isn’t the only one on staff with that interest. I’ve watched interest groups host meetups for 15-minute afternoon exercise breaks, early morning boating sessions, and monthly board game nights that even included remote employees virtually who shared this interest.
When pockets of the company form and casually interact inside or outside of work, bonds and camaraderie emerge that wouldn’t otherwise exist. These employees often become your highest engaged, most productive team members because they care about the people and the company on a deeper level.
Not Only Leaders Can Be Culture Champions
You might initially perceive culture champions to be people in your department who are vocal in meetings, passionate about their work, or great at leading a team. Although that might be true in some cases, I know great leaders who aren’t inherently culture champions, and vice versa.
Whether it be the CMO, a manager, or someone deeper in your organization, all you need is someone who is passionate about an activity or interest and outgoing enough to rally a group of people. In department meetings, ask for ideas for non-work activities, however random they may seem. Usually the folks who respond with some sort of passion are those who have the makings of a culture champion.
Give Employees A Budget And Watch Them Fly
Just as you wouldn’t hire someone solely because they’re passionate about yoga (unless you run a yoga studio), you wouldn’t outright ask a yoga-practicing employee to organize an afternoon stretch session. At the end of the day, when your boss asks you to do something, it becomes part of your job.
Instead, give your culture champions support, permission, and in some cases, budget, so they can create environments where friendships can and will develop naturally. In the scheme of things, a $40 board game is not a huge business expense, but to a culture champion who might be hesitant to spend his or her own dollars, covering this cost goes a long way.
You’ll find that identifying and empowering culture champions on your team can do far more for bonding than any manufactured team-building exercise. You can’t put a number on the value that comes from employees knowing and caring for each other beyond their day-to-day work. And I’ve found that when this happens, these employees not only care more for each other, but also care more about their work, the customers, and the company as a whole.